Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lost in the Labryinth

Recently, a reader sent me a link to an article in the Harvard Business Review by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, called Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership. She said it was one of the best articles on women in leadership that she'd read in awhile, and I have to agree. It argues that the "glass ceiling" metaphor that is so often used to describe the lack of women at the very top levels of leadership is misleading:

"Times have changed, however, and the glass ceiling metaphor is now more wrong than right. For one thing, it describes an absolute barrier at a specific high level in organizations. The fact that there have been female chief executives, university presidents, state governors, and presidents of nations gives the lie to that charge. At the same time, the metaphor implies that women and men have equal access to entry- and midlevel positions. They do not. The image of a transparent obstruction also suggests that women are being misled about their opportunities, because the impediment is not easy for them to see from a distance. But some impediments are not subtle. Worst of all, by depicting a single, unvarying obstacle, the glass ceiling fails to incorporate the complexity and variety of challenges that women can face in their leadership journeys. In truth, women are not turned away only as they reach the penultimate stage of a distinguished career. They disappear in various numbers at many points leading up to that stage."

The authors advance an alternative metaphor, that of a labyrinth:

"Passage through a labyrinth is not simple or direct, but requires persistence, awareness of one’s progress, and a careful analysis of the puzzles that lie ahead. It is this meaning that we intend to convey. For women who aspire to top leadership, routes exist but are full of twists and turns, both unexpected and expected."

I think this is a very powerful metaphor that aptly captures the experience of being a woman trying to work up to positions of leadership. It is not a perfect metaphor, of course. For instance, it does not capture the fact that everyone who aspires to a position of leadership faces a labyrinth. No one has a direct path. Some people face extra challenges and different people are handed maps of differing quality at the outset, though.

Imperfect or not, this article and its metaphor showed up at an apt time in my life. I've recently realized that I'm lost in the labyrinth. For the first time in my career, I face a gender-related obstacle that I have no idea how to navigate past. Specifically, I am caught in what the article refers to as the "double bind" in which behaving in traditionally female ways ("communal" behaviors, such as being compassionate, sensitive to others, and helpful) are seen as weak and not leader-like while behaving in more traditionally male ways ("agentic" behaviors, such as being aggressive, ambitious, and forceful) are seen as damaging in women, and therefore also not leader-like.

I have been well aware of the double bind for many years. I have watched other women navigate it, some more successfully than others. I have developed strategies for navigating it myself, balancing on the razor thin line between being overly communal and overly agentic.

I cannot go into the details here, but I am 100% sure that I have stumbled in this attempt recently, and my effectiveness in my current position is compromised. It almost goes without saying that I think my potential for future advancement is also compromised.

I am utterly unsure of what to do next. None of the articles I have ever read on the subject present a viable solution to the double bind. They just note that it exists and causes problems for ambitious women.

(As an aside: I also really enjoyed the recent New York Times article by Stephanie Coontz about why gender equality has stalled, but wished it would have more thoroughly addressed the extent to which having to deal with crap like the double bind leads women to decide that pushing to stay in the workforce after having children just isn't worth the effort, and also the extent to which the subtle drain on self-confidence that this and other double standards create helps tip mothers away from the workforce.)

At this point, I find myself wondering what I even want. Do I want a map showing the way past this obstacle? Or do I instead want a labyrinth escape plan? That is, should I try to find a way to navigate through the double bind, at least temporarily, and continue on my current path, or should I listen to the little voice in my head that is telling me that the prize at the end of this particular labyrinth isn't worth the struggle, and work on finding a way to opt out and forge a new path to a different prize?

I honestly don't know which option to choose. On one hand, the double bind angers me, and I somewhat stubbornly do not want to let it block my progress. But recently, I've started to wonder if that stubbornness might be keeping me from taking the risks that could lead me to a better path. It is not an easy decision, but it is one I can no longer ignore.

23 comments:

  1. I too have seen the double bind in action firsthand (as have my performance reviews). It sucks, but I think it's also a function of the particular corporate culture.

    I've heard of companies like Starbucks that are much more communal in culture, more consensus driven, and I wonder if the double bind is less there. Or in companies where there are just more women in prominent positions.

    I'm not sure, but I'd guess your industry is male-dominated too, though maybe not as much as mine, esp at the higher levels?

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    1. The top levels of biotech are heavily skewed male, and my particular field within biotech is skewed even more. My particular current problem is with a group that skews even more male than the rest of the industry, too.

      Another incredibly frustrating thing is that I can't even point out the problem to anyone, because nothing screws you faster than calling sexism. You aren't supposed to point out this sort of thing when it happens to you, just figure out a way to get past it.

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    2. These situations really need to have a senior male, or just any male, pointing out the sexism. Or even if not pointing out the sexism explicitly, going through the motions of asking people to double check their responses. That is unfair too.

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  2. This is difficult stuff... Could you do both -- promise yourself that you will leave some set period after you have navigated your way out of the double bind? I know I would have a hard time letting go of a well-paid job (even one I am not crazy about) in the face of something so unfair without a hell of a fight, likely out of sheer stubbornness, too. Committing to yourself to leave by a certain date in the future would help provide the impetus you perhaps need, while you do get to see the current events play out, and don't take an abrupt and unplanned pay cut. By working through the crisis, perhaps as a bonus you also score one for working women everywhere! :)

    I don't mean to make light of the situation; just here to give you an e-hug, tell you I am happy to help in any way I can, and wish you luck no matter what you decide!

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    1. I've sort of done that- I have given myself a fuzzy deadline by which to make a decision. And in the meantime, I continue on.

      I have always said that no woman should feel obligated to stay in a crappy situation and fight to improve the global situation... but now that it is me who is thinking about leaving, I find it hard to take my own advice!

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    2. I don't think there's a contradiction... if you get utility from fighting or from being a trail-blazer, then fighting makes more sense than if you don't. It isn't an obligation for anybody, but just because they don't have to do something doesn't mean that people aren't going to do it because they want to make a difference.

      Everyone gets to do their own cost-benefit analysis.

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  3. It's incredibly frustrating. I worked (relatively briefly) at a company in your very own industry, and I think only the fact that about half the employees were female (though still skewed more towards non-technical jobs) made there be less of a penalty for being female.

    I personally find it incredibly hard to judge whether any specific thing, the path to which is nebulous, is going to be worth an unspecified amount of struggle, which is usually unpleasant in the right now.

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    1. One of the interesting things in the article is the data showing women put other women in the same double bind, which is sad- but I've seen that in action, too. I do think, though, that having more women in a group or company helps combat the problem.

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  4. I wonder if the labyrinth + Scalzi's "difficulty setting" is a more complete metaphor.

    I wish I had some advice-- I have zero desire to do administration. I have aunts who have been very successful in their paths (one is the president of a hospital system, the other a high-level federal judge). They're a bit younger than Hillary Clinton, but if you saw that page analyzing her physical reactions to the congressional Benghazi hearings, that pretty much captures them too. They have high self-confidence and a knowledge that they are doing the right thing (among possible options), which they generally are. Not that they don't listen to alternative viewpoints or make improvements-- they have growth mindsets. I also know a woman slightly older than me who is climbing up the success ladder at a think-tank, and she has a similar attitude. I second-guess myself too much and care too much about what other people think, though as I get older I'm moving away from that. (Really though I would find managing other people frustrating. Managing competent people is a joy, but most people aren't perfect.)

    Good luck figuring out if admin is something you want to pursue, and if so, pursuing it!

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    1. Yeah, anytime I think about this sort of thing I find myself coming back to the "difficulty setting" metaphor. It really is a great one.

      I've seen the Hillary Clinton gifs. They were classic.

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  5. I think this is a really excellent post Cloud. I also think that Gen X is hitting the actual midlife crisis phase and the part where you wonder if the prize is worth having at all really resonates with me.

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    1. That's the hard thing, isn't it? You don't really know what that prize is worth until you get it.

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  6. I just read that Stephanie Coontz article this week.

    Anyhow, I don't have anything else constructive to say other than to say "thanks" for this, and other, post(s). Along the lines of "you can't be what you can't see," I highly value what you share in terms of the balance and challenges associated with being a female, professional, and parent.

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    1. Thanks! I am glad the posts are useful. It is certainly useful for me to write them.

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  7. So the labyrinth metaphor has many things going for it, but I agree with you that everyone faces issues going through the labyrinth. I've observed my husband's career over the years, and the ways some of his male colleagues -- white men with SAH wives, even! -- get derailed. There are limited top leadership roles in any field, and usually far more people with the raw talent and ambition necessary to take on those roles than there are spots.

    I hope you figure out your situation -- but are you sure anyone other than you thinks your effectiveness has been compromised?

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    1. Yeah, unfortunately, I have fairly incontrovertible evidence that my effectiveness has been compromised. It isn't so severe as to completely ruin the job, and I may recover from it, but I sort of suspect that the extent to which I recover depends at least in part on whether I manage to get my footing back on that thin line between communal and agentic. And I'm struggling with that a bit right now. Perhaps part of the problem is that I am losing patience with this balancing game I have to play. So I am more than a little tempted to just be how I want to be and let the chips fall where they may. That might be unpleasant in the short term, but maybe it would be a better strategy long term. Or maybe not.

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    2. Feel free to shoot me an email if you want to talk about it in more detail. I'm probably not the best person for advice on interpersonal relationships at work (I have very low tolerance for bs and incompetence), but I can make soothing virtual *patpatpats* and indignant, "that's not rights".

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    3. I vote for being as you are and seeing what happens. you say you have a good financial cushion so you would not be devastated by the loss of job, perhaps it's time to give yourself the freedom to be authentic. Good luck!

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    4. Thanks, @nicoleandmaggie. I may take you up on that as I work through my ideas about what to do, particularly if Mr. Snarky tires of the subject!

      @GMP- if the thing at risk was just this one job, I'd definitely do as you say. But biotech is very much a small world, so there is some risk to my ability to land future jobs. I actually know someone who is no longer able to get jobs in her original field because of a very similar problem. She's working on a career change now.

      But yeah, I'm leaning towards just being how I want to be and letting the chips fall where they may. I have other ideas for things to do for a living that I could turn to if biotech becomes impossible.

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  8. Is there anyone, like your supervisor(s), who could be noticing that something is amiss? You have told us that you are known as an efficient manager, surely if things look much different now someone else who knows ypu well must have noticed something?
    Of course, I am talking out of my ass, don't really know what the situation is. But it truly must be horrible if you feel you are in a bind and there is no one who sees it and no one to whom you can talk...
    I second N&M's offer, if you need a place to vent in privacy, I am happy to listen offline.
    Hang in there!

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    1. Thanks! We had dinner w/some friends who also work in techie fields, and I had a nice vent. So I am feeling better. I can't blog the details, but work is OK- just suboptimal. There is almost no chance I'll lose my job (unless the company folds or something drastic like that). I guess we'll see how things sort themselves out long term, but I suspect my chances for promotion are slim, which is a shame because a merger left me with a seriously stupid title. I think some people see the problem. Maybe even a couple have correctly diagnosed it. So there is a chance things will work out better than I think they will right now.

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  9. Kristin9:19 PM

    Something I liked about that article was that it not only pointed out the double blind issue, but that it also highlighted that leadership skills more typically used by women were often the more effective ones. Of course, if no one gives you a chance to give those a try, it won't help. I thought this article also discussed that it was best to have more than one woman, or one man, in a group for it to function well. It sounds like you're running into the problem that there are only a few women at your company, so you're always the 'one woman'.

    I understand your frustration and have no real advice. I do wonder if the corporate culture at your current company is consistent with your personal values. If it's not, that seems like it would be creating conflict, sometimes even with things that you can't necessarily put your finger on.

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  10. I'm sorry to hear you're at a bit of an impasse in your current job. I know I've recommended this book a million times - the title sucks but the self-evaluations and advice therein are spot on: "Nice Girls Don't Get The Corner Office" by Dr. Lois P. Frankel. It was super eye-opening and helpful for me in terms of skill-building.

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